Faculty and students are choosing sides and bracing for a battle as West Virginia University educators move closer to a no-confidence vote on President Mike Garrison, whose administration has been tarnished by a master’s degree scandal involving the governor’s daughter.
But even if the vote passes the Faculty Senate on Monday, it’s unclear whether it will be anything more than symbolic. Garrison has repeatedly said he won’t resign, and he has powerful backers in his corner, including Gov. Joe Manchin and WVU Board of Governors members he appointed.
And last year, a similar no-confidence vote from the 114-member Faculty Senate and its endorsement of another finalist were not enough to stop Garrison from landing the job in the first place.
“It was clear that that meant nothing,” biochemistry professor Mike Miller said Friday. “Most of the faculty I’ve talked with feel that if there is a vote of no confidence, and it’s not clear there will be, it will probably not really be effective.”
However, he said he’s spoken to about two dozen faculty, and they are united in their desire to make a statement.
“I’ve not talked with anyone who feels that anything other than a resignation would be appropriate,” Miller said. “There’s not an easy way out. But a lot of us feel there’s a right way out.”
The university community has been divided since an independent panel concluded April 23 that administrators and educators gave Mylan Inc. executive Heather Bresch an executive master’s of business administration degree she didn’t earn.
Provost Gerald Lang and business school Dean R. Stephen Sears have resigned their administrative posts to return to teaching, at least one donor has threatened to withhold gifts to the university and Garrison’s staunchest critics are demanding he leave.
But while the critics have been vocal, they represent only a tiny portion of the 1,925 faculty and the more than 28,000 students. Garrison told The Associated Press this week he has received positive phone calls from faculty, staff, students and alumni.
“You hear about the ones that are negative. And I appreciate their anger. I’m not diminishing that in any way,” he said. “But I’ve had a lot of supportive calls as well.”
A letter signed this week by about two dozen health sciences faculty expressed “unequivocal support for and confidence” in Garrison, while calling the resignations of Lang and Sears “regrettable but understandable outcomes.”
The letter, initiated by neurosurgery chairman Julian Bailes, said Garrison “has shown leadership, vision and a commitment to making meaningful change and progressive growth in the numerous fields of medicine.”
“This important process and directed improvement would be jeopardized by his untimely and unwarranted departure,” it said.
J. Thomas Jones, chief executive of West Virginia United Health System and a member of the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission, acknowledged the scandal has been an embarrassment to the university and the state.
“Make no mistake about that. And mistakes were made,” Jones said. “But prior to this, I believe most people would have said President Garrison was doing a good job.”
The panel’s report concluded that administrators showed “seriously flawed” judgment in retroactively awarding Bresch a 1998 degree she insisted she’d earned when there was no academic record to prove it.
Though the report did not cite any evidence that Garrison directly interfered in the decision-making process last fall, it concluded that the presence of his key staff members at the meeting where the decision to issue the degree was made created “palpable” pressure to go along.
Garrison should get the chance to act on the panel’s recommendations for ensuring such a situation never occurs again, Jones said.
Many faculty, however, are refusing to offer a second chance.
At least four motions have been sent to the Faculty Senate, with demands ranging from the creation of panels that would explore the faculty’s strained relationship with the administration to calls for censure and resignations.
“President Garrison’s role in this matter, whether large or small, undermines his ability to lead WVU effectively,” one motion said. “We doubt whether WVU will be able to restore its badly shaken reputation and confidence under his leadership.” That motion was merged late Friday with one calling for Garrison’s censure and resignation.
Garrison says he’ll continue to talk and work with the faculty, regardless of what happens Monday.
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